By Stephen Woodworth
Please watch your step as we descend. As you can see, these stairs were cleft into solid stone and their slant has become treacherous from the tread of so many feet.
And I hope there shall be no stragglers among you. As we say in the Abbey, only two sorts enter the Catacombs: the quick and the dead.
The crypt predates the Abbey, of course, by many centuries. You can see for yourself the difference in construction. Medieval artisans, however clever they might have been, could hardly hope to have burrowed into impenetrable metamorphic rock in this fashion. The early Church often constructed its edifices on top of pagan architecture, both to take advantage of the existing structures and to make a rather presumptuous attempt to usurp the places of older Gods.
I apologize for the cold. At this depth, the temperature remains a constant 56 degrees Fahrenheit, whether in the furnace of summer or the icebox of winter. I’m afraid the damp makes it worse, as well. You can smell it here – the dripping, seeping odour of silt and sediment. But I promise that you shan’t suffer the chill for long.
A few of you are already gasping for breath, so let us rest here in order that I may demonstrate another aspect of these stygian hollows. I shall briefly turn off this electric lantern and I strongly advise all of you to remain absolutely still when I do so. To shift even an inch under such conditions could be catastrophic.
What you are now seeing – or not seeing, depending on your perception – is a cave darkness, the absolute absence of all light. I think you’ll appreciate the paradox of how it makes the cavern feel unimaginably vast and oppressively close at the same time.
I can hear some of you panting with panic, so I’ll switch on this nuisance of a light. There! Again, mind the worn steps as we continue down. On the lower, older stairs, the shallow bevels of parallel footsteps meld into a single deep groove, as if from the dragging of a saurian tail rather than the shuffle of human soles.
What was that? Yes, those markings on the wall are indeed a form of writing – a language sadly lost to all but we initiates of the Abbey. I could translate the passages, but you would probably find them tedious. Most of you, I should say.
Voila! Did I not promise you it would grow warmer? Where before you were shivering, you now are sweltering, and the clammy drafts of the sepulcher have become the hot, humid mineral breaths of a sauna. As I mentioned before, this rock is volcanic in origin, the petrified stratum of what was once boiling magma. We are fearfully deep into the earth now. You can feel it, can’t you? The weight of it compacting the very air around you….
Please note, as we pass, the hexagonal excavation of these cells in the walls, exquisite workmanship that I believe to be unique to this location. Yes, there are an incredible number of them – thousands upon thousands. No, those ovoid chrysalises you see in each cell are not sarcophagi. This is a place of incubation not entombment. Not a grave but a cradle.
Ah! We’ve reached the final flight of these winding steps. As you can see, the tunnel opens into an immense abyss. Would that this paltry light could plumb the farthest reaches of this titanic chamber! There you would view a city of living rock, the scale and splendour of which would beggar the most extravagant fantasies of the pharaohs, its colonnades and cornices teeming with the multitudes whose melodic shrieks are resonating in the stone around us.
But this lantern is obviously quite useless, so I shall turn it off. Those of you who are like me – who have felt the Abbey and its underside calling to you in your dreams across miles and millennia – will have little need of it. Your cells, the cocoons of your larval renaissance, await you.
As for the rest of you, well…recall what I said about the quick and the dead. You will probably not wish to see what is coming.
This concludes our tour. Don’t forget the guide as you depart….
Bio: Stephen Woodworth is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop and a First Place winner in the Writers of the Future Contest. His “Violet Series” of paranormal suspense novels includes the New York Times bestsellers Through Violet Eyes and With Red Hands, as well as the most recent volumes, In Golden Blood and From Black Rooms. His short fiction has appeared in such markets as Fantasy & Science Fiction, Realms of Fantasy, and the venerable Weird Tales, and his short story “The Olverung” was recently included in Tor.com’s Year’s Best Fantasy 9 anthology. Although he is a longtime Lovecraft devotee, rumours of his involvement with the Sect of the Elder Sign are grossly exaggerated. Those who dare to do so may visit him at www.myspace.com/woodworthsworldofwonders.